The Incredible Story Of Greece’s ‘Most Wanted’ Journalist

Reviled in his own country and hailed abroad, Kostas Vaxevanis is most certainly the loneliest and most persecuted journalist in Greece. He acquired a worldwide reputation and became a thorn in the government’s side after publishing the infamous Lagarde list of potentially tax-evading wealthy Greeks. This essay by leading Dutch journalist Ingeborg Beugel, who served as a correspondent for numerous Dutch newspapers and TV stations in Greece, is a portrait of a lone voice crying in the wilderness — a man who fears for the future of Greek democracy.

“At the moment I feel most threatened by the silence. A deafening silence. For an investigative journalist, nothing is worse than being ignored. I do not fear for myself, but for our democracy. It’s in danger.” Kostas Vaxevanis speaks like an exhausted robot. In recent months, he has tirelessly repeated the same words over and over again. To foreign reporters, mainly, because the Greek press doesn’t want to hear from him anymore — something which, he himself agrees, is utterly incomprehensible. Ever since the first publication of his magazine Hot Doc exposed the scandalous practices of a major Greek bank in May last year, he has revealed one major scandal after another. But none of this is being picked up by his colleagues, none of whom appear willing to cover his stories. Vaxevanis has already received two international journalism awards, but not a single Greek newspaper or broadcaster has written about it. “Even though we Greeks, chauvinistic as we are, are always the first to cry it from the rooftops when a fellow Greek wins something abroad,” he sighs with a wry smile on his face.

Vaxevanis looks like a chain-smoking war correspondent — replete with the stubble, dark rings around his eyes and roughed-up hairdo — but he has never lit a cigarette in his life. Once upon a time, he was indeed one of the few Greek war correspondents, in the Middle East and during the war in Yugoslavia. Now he finds himself on a very different battlefield: in his own country. He is being ridiculed, sabotaged, followed, persecuted, wiretapped, threatened, attacked, and there have been attempts to break into his home — no ordinary burglary, either. It’s almost like he ended up in a bad Hollywood movie. “And that’s precisely the problem. No one believes what’s happening to us. There are things we don’t even publish anymore, just so people will keep taking us seriously.” The fuss is mostly about him, but he consistently talks about “us”: the Hot Doc team and himself.

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mso-bidi-font-family:"Times New Roman"”>Wiretapping, drug-planting and other sinister plots
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mso-bidi-font-family:"Times New Roman"”>An improperly obtained USB stick full of compromising data

September 2012 was a busy month. The month in which Vaxevanis was approached by “someone” sitting on top of the so-called Lagarde list. At that point, no one knew about the existence of the list. Even though other countries in Europe’s southern periphery had received similar lists from Christine Lagarde, who was then still the Finance Minister of France and who now heads the IMF. That was three years ago. A certain Falcani, an employee at HSBC in Switzerland, had left the bank with a number of files listing the names, accounts and deposited sums of wealthy citizens from the Southern European countries: potential tax evaders. Falcani somewhat improperly passed the information on to Lagarde, who in turn passed it on to her Southern European colleagues on a number of USB sticks. Italy, Spain and Portugal immediately started working on the lists, and clawed back billions of euros worth in tax payments. Vaxevanis had never heard of the information, until he received the list with 2.059 Greek names and accompanying data. No, no one knows how that transpired, he adds with a wink, just he and his source. And no, he has never personally met his source. “But I think I know who it is. I don’t know his motives, but I believe they are pure and correct,” Vaxevanis says sternly. It reminds me of Watergate. Bernstein never met his deep throat either.

When he saw the file, Vaxevanis nearly fell off his chair: the list contained the names of a number of well-known Greek businessmen, real estate developers, politicians, journalists, lawyers, former ministers, former secretaries of state and family members of current government officials. Moreover, all the owners of Greece’s commercial TV and radio stations turned out to be connected to the list in one way or another. He realized that he was sitting on top of a bombshell. After all, how would the Greek people react to a list of potential tax evaders containing the names of the same very people who were now cutting their salaries and pensions, imposing one unpalatable tax after another, all while depositing their own money abroad in foreign bank accounts?

After everything Vaxevanis had already been through, he couldn’t afford to make a single mistake. He first of all called up a number of acquaintances who were also on the list. As it turns out, they already knew of the list’s existence, because after finding out what Falcani had done, the HSBC had individually called each and every single one of their wealthy Southern European customers to warn them and to offer them to close their accounts. Many had already done so. And, other than that, they had obviously remained silent as the grave. But to Vaxevanis they could no longer stay silent: “Maybe because they had closed their accounts long ago and fancied themselves safe? But of course it doesn’t matter. They used to have those accounts. Many of the accounts were transit accounts to channel money through. That happened a lot in the run-up to the Olympic Games in Athens in 2004, during which the Greek elite shamelessly enriched itself. All of that needs to be investigated. The fact that you only have 10.000 euros in your account now doesn’t mean that it can’t be 5 million tomorrow, or that it wasn’t 50 million at some point in the past.”

Afterwards, Vaxevanis put his entire team on the phone, because a handful of confirmations clearly wouldn’t be enough to run the story. For days on end, they called around 1.000 people, recording all those conversations and documenting everything. They consulted lawyers and legal experts and determined a strategy. Everyone had to swear an oath of secrecy and absolutely nothing was allowed to come out before publication. Hot Doc decided to only publish the names, not the account numbers, let alone the deposited sums, which would be punishable under law as a violation of privacy.

Now there are sparks of joy in Vaxevanis’ eyes. For a bit, he looks just like a kid: “Until this very day, no one knows how we managed to publish that issue in such utmost secrecy. Our printing presses belong to Bobolas, the media tycoon, owner of the commercial mammoth station MEGA. It happened on September 28, in the dead of night. The building was surrounded and protected by our own people, the workers and technicians didn’t know a thing, except for a couple of friends of ours on the inside. Some of the prints didn’t come out very well, so we had to take them out. Normally you throw those failed copies away, but we immediately burned them. We loaded the trucks ourselves and accompanied some of them to distribute it all. We were exhausted, we didn’t sleep for a week. But everything went perfectly.”

And then the bomb exploded.

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Vaxevanis was told that he would be arrested before the Hot Doc issues would even make it to the stands. He heard it from friends. The police had shown up at their doorsteps looking for him. He went to a house of acquaintances to consult his lawyers. Because the phone was being tapped, the authorities quickly discovered his whereabouts. Vaxevanis seems bitter now: “it was as if they showed up with fifty officers. They were aggressive, heavy-handed, as if I were some kind of criminal. And they were very quick to arrest me, in contrast to their flaccid response to the MP of the extreme right-wing Golden Dawn party, who was charged for slapping a fellow MP in the face. In his case it took a week before he was arrested.” Just for a bit Vaxevanis raises his voice. Then he continues on a more resigned note: “Ah, well, it’s like the New York Times wrote: here they don’t go after the tax evaders, the big fish, but they go for the journalist who exposes them. You just kill the messenger. That’s how we do it in Greece.”

The next day, Vaxevanis was accused of violating the privacy of the people on the Lagarde list. He was immediately acquitted, in front of the cameras and microphones of the entire foreign press corps. His lawyers had already unsuccessfully argued that the charges were full of procedural inconsistencies: the signature of the public prosecutor on the indictment was missing, for instance, and not a single Hot Doc issue had been presented as evidence. But none of this seemed to matter. Only after the acquittal the prosecutor suddenly agreed that errors had been made. Against all the rules and procedures, they decided not to appeal but to start a re-trial on June 10, an unprecedented move in the country’s legal history. Abroad, there was outrage — and, for once, even a lone Greek newspaper agreed.

The genie, however, was out of the bottle. The Greek people, their backs broken by a thousand cuts and taxes, were absolutely outraged. They felt betrayed to the very bone. Hot Doc instantly gained national fame and was sold throughout the country. The government could no longer ignore the popular outrage and decided to call a parliamentary inquiry, something that rarely happens in Greece — and, in contrast to other countries, always takes place behind closed doors. A vote was taken to subpoena only former Finance Minister Papaconstantinou of the ruling conservative party, and not his successor — Venizelos of PASOK, also in the governing coalition — who briefly “lost” the list as well and who, as it turned out, even had the USB stick lying around his home for a while. Better to make a herculean effort to shift responsibility onto a single former minister, so the whole affair can be dismissed as an ‘incident’, than risk dragging down the entire sitting coalition, those in government must have reasoned.

To add insult to injury, further investigation revealed that the list published by Hot Doc did not match the original list in Paris. The Parisian list had 2.062 names on it, while Hot Doc‘s version, stemming from the minister’s office, contained “only” 2.059. The names of three family members of the minister were missing, providing some food for thought. The public of course bluntly accused Papaconstantinou of purposefully deleting the names of his family members and mercilessly dragged him through the mud. The minister himself denies having tampered with the list and claims to have been framed.

Vaxevanis grimaces: “It’s not about those three names. The point is that in this country the list can simply disappear for three years without anyone doing anything about it. While Greece stumbles blindly into the abyss and school children are forced to eat from the garbage bins, the government is allowing tax evaders to get away unpunished. That’s unacceptable.” Does he expect anything from the parliamentary committee? “Nothing whatsoever. Three members of the committee are connected to the list themselves. Not a soul is writing about that. The chairman of the committee was once caught up in a legal case for purchasing helicopters for the forest fires at three times the normal price. He would have been taken to court, but thanks to the immunity law of the same Venizelos who just escaped prosecution, his case has now been declared inadmissible under the statute of limitations. While for a normal citizen legal proceedings expire after a 20-year period, for a minister it does so after just one year. It will be the same story with Papaconstantinou. They’ll certainly find something, he will be taken to the highest court, and the case will expire under the statute of limitations. It’s a cover-up.” On his own trial of June 10, Vaxevanis is defiant: “If they do convict me this time, I will not buy off my punishment; I want to go to prison. We’ll see what happens then. I will take action from behind the bars, and the whole world will be watching Greece.”

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Meanwhile, as this piece was being written, Vaxevanis’ trial took place. It ended up being quite an anticlimax: this time around, the final judgment was postponed until October 8. Once again, the whole affair was rather clumsy. Vaxevanis’ most important witnesses were absent for legitimate reasons. Two of his three lawyers also couldn’t make it; one of them ironically because he had to work on the parliamentary investigation of the Lagarde list. Under such circumstances it’s normally standard practice — indeed, a matter of routine — to immediately grant postponement. But both the prosecutor and the judge demanded that the trial continue. After hours of fussing and fighting, and with the utmost difficulty, Vaxevanis’ only available lawyer finally managed to obtain a formal postponement. In the courtroom next door a member of Golden Dawn, accused of serious physical abuse, received several months of postponement within five minutes. Remarkably, and unlike the time before, there was hardly any international press at the proceedings. Vaxevanis, speaking over the phone: “I was immensely close to being tried without witnesses, without lawyers, and no one would have said a word.”

So Vaxevanis took to Twitter and Facebook last week, grumbling on the To Kouti Pandoras website about his unfair treatment, about the violation of the law and the democratic principles that had once again been disrespected, and patiently answered as many questions from foreign journalists as he could. All to no avail. The next day, the world’s attention shifted to the dramatic closure of the public broadcaster ERT. Prime Minister Samaras of the conservative New Democracy party simply decided — all by himself and without consulting his social-democratic coalition partners PASOK and DIMAR — to immediately send home ERT’s 2.656 workers by simply shutting down the broadcaster. That way he also managed to circumvent the thousands of highly complex and protracted dismissal procedures that apply to Greece’s public officials.

In the evening, riot police invaded the ERT premises — without any warning whatsoever — to literally pull the plug on the TV station. Unexpecting Greeks throughout the country saw their TV screens turning black. After midnight, the transmitters at the ERT’s central headquarters in Athens were targeted, in scenes reminiscent of the dark days of the German occupation and the junta. According to Samaras, the ERT was a ‘hotbed of opacity, mismanagement, fraud and corruption’ and its closure was the ‘only option’. Coming from Samaras, these remarks seemed all the more ironic. After all, every single one of Greece’s previous governments had gratuitously doled out ERT jobs to their friends after their respective election victories. Following the June 2012 elections, Samaras himself appointed as many as 28 people to the ERT board at excessively high salaries.

Vaxevanis, who once ran away from the ERT in disgust, is now supporting the fired ERT workers who have occupied their buildings and who keep broadcasting over the Internet. I decide to call him one last time. Wasn’t it a self-censoring cowardly gang? I asked him. Weren’t they the slaves of the government? Weren’t they utterly unmanageable? Isn’t a radical shut-down and a fresh start with a clean slate the only hope for a well-functioning and journalistically independent future Greek broadcaster? Vaxevanis, now foaming with rage: “All true. But underneath that corrupt management there was a handful of very competent and driven journalists, program-makers and technicians who despite everything tried to do their jobs as well as they could. They have now been sacrificed. This is not about our broadcaster; it’s about our democracy. This is the umpteenth decision of the government that Samaras pushed through by decree, without any debate in parliament, without proposing any bill. Just like it used to happen in the Weimar Republic. The president could have refused, but he himself has become a debt collector. Our democracy is in danger.”

De Groene Amsterdammer, was translated from Dutch by ROAR editor Jérôme Roos. 

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